Lost credits hurt transfer students

Lost credits make it difficult for community college transfers to earn a bachelor’s degree, concludes a new City University of New York study. The more credits earned but rejected by the four-year institution, the less likely a transfer will graduate.

Students who start at a community college with hopes of earning a bachelor’s are less likely to reach their goal than similar students who start at a four-year college or university. The study estimates a 17 percent graduation gap for full-time, traditional-age students. The usual suspects — inadequate academic preparation and community colleges’ vocational emphasis — aren’t the primary factors, the authors write. Community college students don’t “cool out” on their desire for a bachelor’s degree. Nor is it true that community college students receive lower aid levels after transfer. For the most part, it’s the lost credits, the CUNY study concludes.

Six-year outcomes by starting institution type (Source: National Student Clearinghouse)

Fifty-four percent of community college transfers would earn a bachelor’s degree, if not for lost academic credits, researchers estimate. Currently, only 45 percent complete a four-year degree in four years.

“Loss of credits is a tax on transfer students,” CUNY researcher David Monaghan said.

Eighty-one percent of community college students say they plan to transfer and earn a four-year degree. But only 42 percent of BA-intending students actually transfer.

The average full-time student takes 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, estimates Complete College America. The average student earns 80 credits for an associate degree that requires 60 and 136.5 for a 120-degree bachelor’s degree.

Retaking courses costs time and money, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed

“About 14 percent of transfer students in the study essentially began anew after transferring,” according to the paper. Fewer than 10 percent of their community college credits were accepted. A majority — 58 percent — transferred 90 percent or more of their credits. The remaining 28 percent lost between 10 and 89 percent of their credits.

To avoid transfer hassles, community colleges in more than 20 states now offer four-year degrees, typically in vocational fields. California legislators are considering the option for the state’s 112 community colleges.

A new report on college completion from the National Student Clearinghouse estimates that 36.5 percent of students who start at community college will complete an associate degree in six years, while 15 percent will complete a four-year degree. Completion rates are much higher for exclusively full-time students and traditional-age students.

How to earn a low-debt bachelor’s degree

Starting at a community college will cut the cost of a bachelor’s degree, but students have to be savvy to make it work, writes Lisa Ward in the Wall Street Journal.

Transferring credits can be be “complicated and confusing,” she writes. Students and parents should research whether their state has coordinated community college and state university credits.

For example, California, Louisiana and Texas guarantee admission to a four-year state university to any student who earns an associate degree at an in-state community college. Florida has the same guarantee for an associate of arts, but transfers will need high grades and prerequisites to get into popular majors at prestigious schools.

Some states, including Texas and Florida, use the same numbering system for community college and state university courses. Psych 101 is the same at every school, making it easier for students to know which credits will transfer.

Hybrid degree programs also help transfers earn low-cost bachelor’s degrees.

 Houston Community College and University of Texas at Tyler designed a program where students can earn an associate’s degree in engineering from HCC and then enroll at UT Tyler, as long as their grade-point average is 2.5 or higher. The program sets the student up for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering.

“It costs $19,000, for all four years, if you live in-state,” says David Le, who is enrolled in the program. “No one ever believes me when I tell them how cheap it is,” says Mr. Le, who lives at home because the program is taught entirely at HCC’s campus.

Earning college credit in high school also cuts the cost of a degree. Most schools offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that enable students to earn college credit. Increasingly, students can earn credits through “dual enrollment” or “early college” classes, which often are taught by community college instructors.

“In many cases, dual enrollment and early college are the absolutely cheapest way to earn college credit because it’s free,” says Dilip Das, assistant vice provost at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

29% are on completion track

How Full-Time are “Full-Time” Students? asks a Complete College America a policy brief. Not very. Students who take 12 units a term are considered full-time — they’re eligible for full federal aid — but 15 credits are needed to stay on track for graduation.

Four percent of students seeking two-year degrees graduate in two years the report points out. For students seeking four-year degrees, the on-time graduation rate is 19 percent.

Only 29 percent of community college students and 50 percent of four-year students are taking 15 or more credits per semester. That means many students — even those who think they’re full-timers — will need an extra year or two to complete a degree, even if they choose all the right classes and pass every one.

The University of Hawaii’s 15 to Finish campaign, which raises awareness about the advantages of truly full-time enrollment, has raised the number of truly full-time students. Retention rates are up 22 percent.

Complete College America also is advocating for “banded” tuition. That would ensure that taking 15 credits per semester costs no more than 12.

In addition, states should cap credits needed for degrees at 60 for an associate degree and 120 for a bachelor’s, the group suggests.

Udacity: Online pass rates are up

Udacity’s online partnership with San Jose State was suspended because of low pass rates in for-credit classes in its first semester. Pass rates improved significantly over the summer, exceeding on-campus pass rates in statistics, algebra and programming, but falling short in psychology and entry-level math, writes Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.

Learning from what didn’t work in the spring, Udacity changed some of the course content, Thrun writes.

We added hints for challenging exercises, and we added more course support staff to assist with online discussions and communications. We also changed the pacing methodology, informing students earlier and as part of their course experience when they were falling behind.

Enrollment was opened to anyone who wanted to try. Only 11 percent were California State University students. Half of the summer students already held a college degree and only 15 percent were high school students. In the Spring Pilot, half the participants were high school students (mostly from low-income areas) and half were San Jose State students.

Earning college credit was not the leading motivation, students said.

“Few ideas work on the first try,” Thrun writes. Udacity will keep working to improve the courses, especially in remedial math, which had the weakest results.

Faculty doubt quality of online courses

Professors are skeptical about the quality of online courses, especially MOOCs, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology.

Only one in five think “online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses.” However, professors who’ve taught online (30 percent of respondents) were much likelier to say online courses can be just as effective.

And while even professors who have taught online are about evenly divided on whether online courses generally can produce learning outcomes equivalent to face-to-face classes (33 percent agree, 30 percent are neutral, and 37 percent disagree), instructors with online experience are likelier than not to believe that online courses can deliver equivalent outcomes at their institutions (47 percent agree vs. 28 percent disagree), in their departments (50 percent vs. 30 percent), and in the classes they teach (56 percent vs. 29 percent).

Asked to rate factors that contribute to quality in online education, whether an online program is offered by an accredited institution tops the list for faculty members (73 percent), and about 6 in 10 say that whether an online program is offered by an institution that also offers in-person instruction is a “very important” indicator of quality. Only 45 percent say it is very important that the online education is offered for credit, and about 3 in 10 say it is very important whether the offering institution is nonprofit.

Most professors want to make sure faculty members control decision-making about MOOCs and that accreditors review their quality.

Of professors who’ve never taught an online course, 30 percent say the main reason is because they’ve never been asked.

Geoff Cain offers time-saving tips for teaching online at Brainstorm in Progress. He’s also got advice for online students.

States link aid to credits earned

Every year states hand out $11 billion in college aid — usually without tracking whether students earn a degree. That’s changing, according to the Hechinger Report. Some states are linking student aid to progress toward a degree.

In Indiana, 40 percent of aid recipients complete a four-year degree in six years. Next year, aid recipients will be required to complete 24 credits a year to get aid for the next year. Those who complete 30 credits or more will get an additional $600 a year in aid at public colleges and universities and $1,100 more at private ones.

In most states, state aid runs out after four years of study, but many students don’t look ahead. And when the aid stops, they go into debt for a fifth (or sixth) year — or drop out.

Nationally, less than 58 percent of students at four-year universities and colleges graduate within six years, aaccording to Complete College America. Only 14.3 percent of degree-seeking students at two-year colleges earn an associate degree within three years.

 Paradoxically, many state financial-aid programs pay for a maximum of 24 credit hours annually – 12 per semester – which isn’t enough for a student to reach the 120 credits typically needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. Thirty percent of full-time students at four-year universities and 72 percent at community colleges take even fewer than that and quickly fall behind, Complete College America reports.

In West Virginia, 70 percent of financial aid recipients who are required to take 30 credits a year earn a degree in six years, compared to 48 percent of all the state’s four-year college students. Similar pilot programs are showing signs of success in Louisiana, Ohio and New Mexico.

There have been similar proposals to tie federal financial aid to graduation rates by forgiving federal student loans for low-income students who graduate within four years, rewarding students with larger grant amounts for taking at least 30 credits per year and requiring students who drop out to pay back the government for any grant money they received.

Critics warn struggling students might fail if forced to take more credits.

Credits without hours?

There’s a growing wave of enthusiasm for degrees based on competency rather than credit hours. Echoing Sherman Dorn, Matt Reed asks whether high ed should just drop the “hours” from “credit hours.” His answer:  Because then “credits” could mean anything or nothing.

For-profit providers have an incentive to inflate credits, writes Reed, who’s worked in the for-profit sector.

In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program — which was specifically geared at working adults — to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient.  The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.

. . . If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper.  And now that many of those classes are online — in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous — there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.

The “credit hour” was at least based on something, even though it was the wrong thing, he writes.

Competencies require a reliable way to document that students have acquired the skills they claim. That’s not simple. Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America — the first to receive approval for federal financial aid —  doesn’t accept transfer credits. That doesn’t answer the question: How will a student transfer from a competency-based college to a credit-based one?

Competency unbundles college

When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.

The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”

 Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.

Transfers need to know what credits will count

Transfer students aren’t cash cows, yet they’re frequently milked by four-year colleges, write Alexander P. Ott and Bruce S. Cooper in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

, , , many colleges require a transfer student to make a commitment to attend—in the form of a nonrefundable deposit—before they will give out information about transfer credits. In short, they are saying, “Buy now! We’ll tell you later what it will actually cost you.”

Transfer students are more likely to be first-generation college students and come from low-income, minority families, write Ott and Cooper. They need to make an informed choice about which college will make it possible for them to complete a degree without delay.

Feds OK aid for competency programs

Students earning credits for competency will be eligible for federal student aid, confirmed the U.S. Education Department in a letter this week. The “department is poised to approve an application by Southern New Hampshire University to award aid based on the direct assessment of student learning,” notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.

By clarifying that colleges may apply under the “direct assessment” provision—and encouraging them to do so—the Education Department is signaling a willingness to move beyond “seat time”—the time students spend in class—in awarding aid. That has important implications for new models of education, supporters of the provision say.

“It moves away from time as a proxy for learning, and that is key,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.

In the letter, David A. Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said competency-based programs “have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials … and reducing the overall cost of education.”

Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary of Education, told reporters the department will “be very careful” not to approve aid for fraudulent programs. Colleges will have to link their competencies to credit hours and earn accreditors’ approval of the equivalencies.